Extreme Fathers of the Bride

Kathleen Parker

3/23/2007 12:01:00 AM - Kathleen Parker

Those darned patriarchal Christians are at it again.

With "purity balls" back in the news -- dress-up affairs during which fathers and daughters profess their allegiance to sexual purity -- evangelicals once again have become America's favorite whipping boys.

Are these guys weird, or what? Well, yes, a little. But then again, not really.

Purity balls are an inevitable offspring of a permissive culture that at times seems more predatory than liberating. The dads and daughters who "date," dance and exchange purity oaths are merely a reactionary response. Every extreme invites another.

Now in their seventh year, purity balls were the brainchild of Pastor Randy Wilson and his wife Lisa, who run the Generations of Light ministry in Colorado Springs. In a Glamour magazine interview last month, Lisa said they wanted to "set a standard of dignity and honor for the way the girls should be treated by the men in their lives."

A video of their recent ball at The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs confirms feminists' deepest suspicions. One segment features a parade of ballerinas in long white tutus toting a large wooden crucifix into the center of the ballroom, around which they glissade, jete and pas de bourree to music that is a hybrid hallelujah-dirge.

Next, in the kind of blunt symbolism that leaves the dirty-minded breathless, fathers and daughters parade beneath an arch created by two men holding very long swords. The girls/women dip to drop white roses at the foot of the crucifix.

Is it hot in here or is it just me? Odd as purity balls seem to some people, they are not far removed from debutante balls still popular in many parts of the country. A key difference, of course, is that after the debutantes promenade in their practice bridal gowns, they go get sloshed and crash with their dates.

Everybody knows it's a charade, but it's a charade in the service of tradition and civilization. Ultimately charming, debutante balls are benign curtsies to the veneers of modesty and discretion that help humans distinguish themselves from their pets.

Most fathers generally hope that their daughters will postpone sex until adulthood, if not marriage. They may know that's an unlikely proposition, especially once their daughters hit college, where virginity is considered a sign of abnormality. But sane parents prefer that their daughters (and sons) not waste themselves on random hook-ups where sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to be exchanged than last names.

Critics of the purity balls marshal the usual feminist arguments. The fathers, they say, are trying to keep women in their subordinate place, reiterating the oppressive patriarchal structure of Christian homes and the broader society they seek to control.

This position is always offered as though women have no choice in whom they marry or what religion they practice. Fundamentalists of all stripes are too literal for my book club, but even the most extreme Christian is still subject to American laws prohibiting slavery, indentured servitude, assault and battery, rape, stoning, female genital mutilation and whatever other horrors patriarchal paranoiacs imagine happen when fathers act as heads of households.

Talibaniacs are not us.

Nevertheless, a women's studies professor writing for USA Today expressed her concern that such pampering comes at the price of the daughters' "sexual self-agency." She also asserted that the underlying premise of the balls is "the age-old assumption that sex is dirty: hence the infantilizing conflation of 'purity,' or sexual innocence, and ignorance."

Nowhere have I heard or read that these Christian men think sex is dirty. But they might think it's dangerous, and statistics on STDs and emotional dysfunction among teenage girls support their concerns.

In a culture where 46.7 percent of students will be sexually active before high school ends, there are also 5 million to 6 million new cases each year of human papillomavirus, which is associated with cervical cancer. What, fathers worry? Critics of abstinence-only attitudes and education inevitably cite a study that found that kids who take virginity oaths are at greater risk for STDs than are those who have been exposed to sex ed. Apparently, members of the virginity crowd sometimes trip on the light fandango and, surprised by passion, are unprepared.

Other studies, however, show that deep father involvement in a girl's life increases her self-esteem and delays sexual experimentation. All things considered, purity balls are probably less a threat to women's sexual self-agency than the culture that has spawned them.